Concepts of Ishtadevata and Trimurties
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Vishnu is often regarded as a special manifestation of the preservative aspect of the Supreme and Siva as that of the destructive function. Another deity, Brahma, the creator, remains in the background as a demiurge. These three Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, constitute the Trimurthi (Hindu Trinity "the One or Whole with Three Forms").
This conception attempts to
synthesize and harmonize the conviction that the Supreme Power is singular with
the plurality of gods in daily religious worship. Although the concept of the
Trimurti assigns a position of special importance to some great gods, it never
has become a living element in the religion of the people. Moreover, Brahma has
no major cult since ancient times, and many Hindus worship neither Siva nor
Vishnu but one or more of the innumerable other Hindu Gods, all incarnation of
one of the Thrimurthies.
Vishnu, one of the principal Hindu deities, is worshiped as the protector and preserver of the world and restorer of dharma (moral order). Vishnu, like Siva (the other major god of Hinduism), is a syncretic personality who combines many lesser cult figures and local heroes. He is known chiefly through his avatars (incarnations), particularly Rama and Krishna.
Vishnu was not a major deity in the Vedic period. A few Rigvedic hymns (c. 1400-1000 BC) associate him with the sun and relate the always popular legend of his three strides across the universe (which later formed the basis of the mythology of his avatar Vamana, the dwarf). Legends of other avatars are found in the early literature and by the time of the Mahabharata they begin to be identified with Vishnu. In theory, Vishnu manifests a portion of himself anytime he is needed to fight evil, and his appearances are innumerable; but in practice, 10 of these manifestations known as Dasavarathatha are most commonly recognized.
Temple images of Vishnu depict him either sitting, often in the company of his consorts Lakshmi (also called Sri) and Bhumidevi (Earth); standing holding various weapons; or reclining on the coils of the serpent Sesha, asleep on the cosmic ocean during the period between the periodic annihilation and renewal of the world. The standing Vishnu is dressed in royal garments and holds in his four (sometimes two) hands the sankha (conch), chakra (discus), gada (club), and padma (lotus). On his chest is the curl of hair known as the srivatsa mark, a sign of his immortality, and around his neck he wears the auspicious jewel Kaustubha. In painting, Vishnu is usually shown as dark complexioned, a distinguishing feature also of his incarnations.
Vishnu's vahana (mount) is the mythical bird Garuda, his heavenly abode is called Vaikuntha. Among the 1,000 names of Vishnu (repeated as an act of devotion by his worshipers) are Vasudeva, Narayana, and Hari.
In the Rigveda the sun is compared to a bird in its flight across the sky, and the association of the kite-like Garuda with Vishnu is taken by scholars as another indication of Vishnu's early origins as a sun deity.
The mythological account of
Garuda's birth identifies him as the younger brother of Aruna, the charioteer of
the sun god, Surya. His mother was held in slavery by her co-wife and her sons,
who were nagas (serpents), to which is attributed the lasting enmity between the
eagle like kite and the serpents. The nagas agreed to release his mother if he
could obtain for them a drink of the elixir of immortality, the amrita. Garuda
performed this feat with difficulty and on his way back from the heavens met
Vishnu and agreed to serve him as his vehicle and also as his emblem.
Garuda is described in one text as emerald in colour, with the beak of a kite, round eyes, golden wings and four arms, and with breast, knees, and legs like those of the kite. His anthropomorphic depiction is with wings and hawk-like features. Two of his hands are in anjali mudra (folded in adoration) and the other two carry an umbrella and the pot of amrita. Sometimes Vishnu rides on his shoulders. Images of Garuda are used by devotees of Vishnu to designate their cult affiliations, and appeared on coins of the Gupta period.
Garuda traveled with the spread of Hinduism to Nepal and to Southeast Asia, where he is frequently depicted on monuments. He is also associated with royalty in several Southeast Asian countries.